Jonathan Zong, lead designer
Rapid coding built on existing web infrastructure
Chrome extension that shows you how politically slanted your Facebook feed is
Jonathan Zong was a 19-year-old computer science and visual arts student when he, Sunny He, Zachary Liu, and Vivian Mo developed their solution for revealing partisan blindness on social media.
As students at Princeton in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, they read about and experienced first-hand the phenomenon known as the filter bubble — the tendency for someone’s web and social media habits to suck them into a political vacuum, blinding them to the perspectives of those on the other side of the political spectrum, and subsequently leading to the polarization of both sides.
With an enormous collection of data comes deep and wide-reaching insight into societal trends. To really dive into these trends, however, can mean violating users’ privacy.
“All of us had an experience that a lot of people had,” Zong said. “Everyone expected Hillary to win and we were surprised when she didn’t.”
The solution — a Google Chrome plug-in called PolitEcho that reveals how politically slanted a user’s Facebook feed is based on their likes and follows — was built at the Facebook Global Hackathon.
PotlitEcho was easy to explain, but had to be carefully executed. One problem was privacy. With an enormous collection of data comes deep and wide-reaching insight into societal trends. To really dive into these trends, however, can mean violating users’ privacy.
Another key discussion was around what they wanted users to get out of it.
“We can show them this information,” Zong said, “but is there some action we want them to take that prompts them to connect with people outside of their filter bubbles?”
They decided that simply revealing the disparity and allowing users to draw their own conclusions and act accordingly would be complex and revealing enough. “We didn’t want to be too didactic.”
Once that was settled, his design considerations were straightforward: Make something accessible to a wide audience (Chrome and Facebook users) and simple to absorb (a red-to-blue spectrum with gradients that communicate the complexity and wide spectrum of political beliefs).
The most complex and subjective aspect was the assigning of graph scores to each news source. Each publication was given a rating based on how left or right-leaning it was. The scores were determined in large part based on dozens of academic studies.
Zong, now an intern at Google Design in New York, was unsurprised, but still unsettled, to learn that his social group was almost exclusively left-leaning.
“It’s made me think more about what design can do in the world …” he said. “It made me think more about how products can be useful, how they can serve a purpose, and also make you think.”
To find out more about PolitEcho, visit politecho.org